cover image The Great Fire of London: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations

The Great Fire of London: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations

Jacques Roubaud. Dalkey Archive Press, $21.95 (330pp) ISBN 978-0-916583-76-7

This challenging book is not a novel but the ruins of a novel: a few sentences of the preface and the struts of a theoretical framework are all that remain of 20 years' work. After dreaming the title in 1961, Roubaud worked out a system of constraints-- based on mathematics and troubador poetics-- which were to form the substructure of his novel. The system was worthy of a mathematics professor and member of Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Oulipo), the literary workshop where Georges Perec cultivated his lipograms and Raymond Queneau his combinatory literature. But when Roubaud's young wife, Alix, died in 1983, the novel ceased to be an intellectual quest and became rather a way of nullifying time. Remnants of the original recondite artifice remain embedded in Roubaud's new conceit, his ``unedited-prose constraint,'' i.e., writing by placing one line after another without attempting to ``erase, replace, correct on the spot . . . this initial language deposit.'' Through this relentless prose and various asides--the ``interpolations and bifurcations''--Roubaud describes university haunts, old lovers, Pooh, making azarole jam, the British Library, himself, his work and the often unspoken but pervasive presence of the dead Alix, whose spirit tempers this demanding book. (July.)